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Positive Public Health Messages Outperform Fear-Based Approaches

Most people respond better to positive public health messages, like those featured in the First Lady's 'Let's Move' campaign, than negative or fear-based messages.

Most people respond better to positive public health messages, like those featured in the First Lady’s ‘Let’s Move’ campaign, than negative or fear-based messages, a new study concludes.

Emphasizing the benefits of eating healthy food is a more effective way to get people to change their behavior than telling them why they shouldn’t be eating junk, according to a new study.

The analysis, conducted by researchers at Cornell University’s Food and Brand Lab, compiled evidence from 43 previously-published studies examining nutrition messages of public health campaigns.

The review found that negative messages — like “Eat healthy foods or lose years off your life!” — are effective for some audiences, particularly experts like physicians or nutritionists who are already knowledgeable in the field. However, positive messages pertaining to what someone should be eating and why it is good for them — such as “By eating healthfully, people can gain positive body image or energy” — tend to work better for a general audience that is less knowledgeable about nutrition.

“If you’re a parent, it’s better to focus on the benefits of broccoli and not the harms of hamburgers,” said Cornell marketing and nutritional science professor Bryan Wansink, who co-authored the report with University of Vermont nutrition and dietetics professor Lizzy Pope, in a release announcing the study.

Extending the research into the area of anti-smoking campaigns, the report argues that a positive message, like “If you quit smoking using this help line, you can save almost $2,000 a year,” would likely be more motivating to its audience than the negative message “Smoking kills you” that is more commonly used.

Recent research on education has also come to a similar conclusion. A 2014 study from the American Psychological Association reported that students who felt threatened by their teachers’ fear-based appeals performed worse on tests because the scare tactics made the students less motivated to succeed.

The Cornell study seems to indicate a shift away from the more attention-grabbing public health campaigns of recent years, such as New York’s “Don’t Drink Yourself Fat” anti-soda campaign and France’s “Smoking Means Being a Slave to Tobacco” anti-smoking ads.

Still, there are caveats. The study’s authors advise public health officials to focus their message on its intended audience, so depending the particular characteristics of that particular audience — such as how detail-oriented or risk-averse it is –a negative public health campaign could still be effective. For example, the provocative “Tips from Former Smokers” ad campaign from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was credited with helping about 100,000 people permanently quit smoking in 2013.

The report was published earlier this year in the journal Nutrition Reviews and will also be presented at the Society of Nutrition Education and Behavior annual conference in Pittsburgh in July. The research was partially funded by the Produce for Better Health Foundation, a consumer education nonprofit.



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